Like one dish in three stages of preparation, George Steinbrenner, Pete Rose and Richard Nixon were served up last week Neapolitan-style. Underdone, overdone and wasn't done after all. Gulp.
Showing Rose that a flaw can be fatal without necessarily being permanent, Nixon took the occasion of the ballplayer's sentencing (five months, tax evasion) to open his own hall of fame in Yorba Linda, Calif. Steinbrenner's Nixon connection traces back 18 years to the days when the famous New York Yankees owner (nee anonymous Cleveland shipbuilder) was trying to buy elections instead of pennants. For contributing illegally to a Nixon campaign, he drew a felony conviction as well as a 15-month suspension from baseball.
Back in the commissioner's dock, this time for a questionable association with Self-Proclaimed Gambler Howard Spira (his full name), Steinbrenner has struck approximately the same pose Rose assumed last year, shivering and dissembling and appearing to be careening toward calamity. Mimicking Rose exactly, he has challenged the impartiality of baseball investigator John Dowd in advance of the commissioner's finding, and has hinted at lawsuits to follow.
In dispute is a $40,000 payment to Spira that Steinbrenner has alternately described as a handout or a holdup. Spira, who once worked as a philanthropist for outfielder Dave Winfield, characterizes the loot as a down payment on a scandal. If Commissioner Fay Vincent agrees that the owner was trying to get something on the player, Steinbrenner may have to absent himself from Yankee Stadium for a while. Wishful fans, typical followers of a last-place club 16 or 17 games out, are nurturing the hope that he might even be compelled to sell the team in the best interests of society.
"It is sad to lose," Nixon said for the three of them, "but the greatest sadness is to travel through life without knowing either victory or defeat." Ronald Reagan, who pardoned Steinbrenner but took no public stance on Rose, said of Nixon: "I think much of the criticism was based on nothing at all." Evangelist Billy Graham concurred: "I have read a lot about Watergate, and I still don't understand why it became such a big thing." Former Treasury Secretary William Simon, who once thought of purchasing the Baltimore Orioles, tossed in "the unrelenting hostility of the national media."
If the media buried Nixon, they also exhumed him, and it is the second part of the process that has sportswriters worried. In sports, there is no true equivalent to the literary politicians who serve their parties before their papers, who attack the press alliteratively on behalf of the government and then throw in with the nabobs in the offseason. Many who wrote speeches for Nixon still do, only now they call them columns.
To be sure, more than a few reporter-publicists travel with ballclubs, and some are known to gloss over the frailties of the local lads. A number actually wear team rings, diamond-studded, on their wedding fingers, testimony to the proposition that cheerful coverage can help win a title. But, not being ideologues (in fact, not exactly sure what an ideologue is), they have no philosophical compass, never mind socio-political program, to steer them 16 or 18 years in any one direction.
If Rose is ever going to make it to Cooperstown or even Yorba Linda, the writers on his side are going to have to start getting on the ball. It is not too soon to play the Kennedy card, and say that Rose didn't do anything his predecessors didn't do. He just happened to come along in an era of bluer noses. Leo Durocher knew shadier characters. Babe Ruth was a lustier womanizer. Ty Cobb was a viler gambler. Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and other recognizable saints have set up autograph stands at card shows to peddle their celebrity to children. If IRS agents can't find coffee cans full of unreported cash in baseball pantries all over America, they aren't trying.
Rehabilitating Steinbrenner is going to be rougher. His technical transgressions are nothing next to his public sins. A despot and an oaf, he took the imperial team and made it common. He turned himself into a headline on the back page of the New York tabloids, a Hindenburg that blows up over and over. His collection of neurotic millionaires flinches and shakes and waits for the next explosion.
It took a request under the Freedom of Information Act to find the following kind words about him, excerpted from affidavits submitted to Reagan in 1986 per Steinbrenner's application for the presidential pardon:
Phil Caruso, Sayville, New York (president of the New York City Patrolman's Benevolent Association):
"I have been a cop for a long time. I have been trained to 'size people up' and over the years have had to do so on a regular basis as part of my job. I think that I am a pretty good judge of character. After 27 years, I know when someone is 'full of it' and when someone is true. With George I have no doubts. George is a straight shooter."
Bishop Edwin B. Broderick, New York City:
"I have a high opinion of George. George is a stand-up guy. He is frank and honest. I know his friends and like them also. I find George completely socially acceptable."
If only everyone had a cop and a bishop to vouch for him, we'd be a society without scoundrels.